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Equal opportunities?

Terraced houses used to be a staple of West Yorkshire’s landscape; I grew up in one. They joined people together in a way the modern estate never will. At the far end of the terrace adjacent to ours lived William - a chirpy fifty-something built from pies. It was with William in mind that many of our most over-used clichés must have been devised: “salt of the earth”, “do anything for anyone”. He arrived home every afternoon in a battered Austin Maxi, looking as though he’d been down the pit. And of course he had. There was no point asking him to explain Schrödinger’s views on quantum entanglement, but if you needed a shelf putting up or your engine tuning, William was your man. And there were thousands just like him - affable, industrious, doing jobs of genuine worth.

But then the government decided that we didn’t need coal mines. William, no doubt, has his feet up somewhere - warmed by foreign imports - but what’s happened to son of William? If he’s lucky, he’ll be driving a fork-lift around a cavernous warehouse; if not, he’s probably serving burgers or vegetating in a call centre. We don’t appreciate William any more; there are few opportunities that play to his strengths. Young folk these days are nobodies unless they’ve attended a former Polytechnic and taken media studies.

Watched by the East Cheam section of the Safety Professionals Guild, three Trainee Investment Analysts attend Network Rail's ceremonial 'Removal of the Gumption', having requalified as Railway Engineering Fellows.
Photo: Rebecca Anne

No-one is good at everything - some are gifted with paperwork, others can handle a spanner. In days gone by, the lack of academic ability was not a barrier to progress. Many of our finest railwaymen - those with true knowledge and nous - joined the local gang as a lad of 15 and learned their trade from the old hands: a proper apprenticeship. Even today, some companies are keen to maintain that tradition, actively recruiting those overlooked by others - recognising that scholastic weakness might be a cloak behind which practical talent and common sense are lurking; both valuable commodities in my book. In a matter of weeks, they can be equipped with the essential skills needed to secure a foothold within the industry. And many have great success stories to tell.

It’s a pragmatic approach that makes both engineering and commercial sense. Trouble is, detached from all that are the middle-aged, middle class, middle managers who determine policy and strategy. For most, their experience of manual work is limited to charging a Blackberry. They’ve never spoken to William’s kind and have no clue about his culture or capabilities. But they claim to know what’s best for him, and the railway. So very soon the academically ill-equipped will be shepherded off the trackside and back into the classroom - compelled to spend months attaining qualifications they simply don’t need for lifting and packing. The driving force behind this is the new National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) - supported by taxpayer’s money but established out of nowhere without any obvious sign of competitive tendering. Mmmm.

Today’s buzz-phrase is “Apprenticeship to Fellowship”; the goal is up-skilling - meeting “the technology and efficiency demands of the railway of the future.” Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with that. But at what price? NSARE is to introduce a Skills Passport, having presumably never seen a Sentinel card. An even grander plan will lift the on-track community, including ‘weekend warriors’, “to a minimum of Level 2” - this will involve them achieving qualifications equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C, as well as relevant NVQs, BTEC awards, certificates and diplomas. Today’s Indians are destined to become tomorrow’s Chiefs, following a “joined-up career pathway” (don’t you just love management twaddle?) to become “professional railway engineers”. This is what the industry needs apparently - a workforce unable, unwilling or unfit to use a shovel.

Can we really afford for our trackworkers to sit unproductively on their backsides, floundering in maths lessons they’d previously turned their backs on? Will it cause them to suddenly find our industry more attractive than Australia’s? Are we ready for yet more layers of cost, competency, assessment, bureaucracy and audit? How will it help the railway become leaner?

To join NSARE - and supposedly have influence over its future direction - sizeable organisations face a bill of £1,000. Small fries will pay £250 for membership. No doubt arms will be twisted amongst the training fraternity as the Academy is to establish a national network of approved providers, creating a single industry accreditation and audit scheme for them. This will leave incumbent contractor Achilles out in the cold, again without tenders being invited. Expect an announcement sometime during the autumn.

New courses and standardised content packages are also on the agenda. Let’s hope these are unburdened by the flaws that plague existing training materials, with their misinterpreted rules, outdated terminology, poorly worded and error-strewn workbooks, non-compliant video clips and typographical bloopers. Have they not heard of proof reading? So if this latest upheaval brings an injection of new blood, innovation and excellence, all well and good - the cost will be worth it. But the initial signs are not hopeful. Some ‘usual suspects’ have already booked seats on the gravy train as they journey towards retirement or up the career ladder.
...some ‘usual suspects’ have already booked seats on the gravy train...

Only the delusional would argue that the industry’s current competence regime is faultless. The horrors exposed by ‘Assessment in the Line’ - Network Rail’s convenient get-out clause - have rightly set alarm bells ringing. Levelling that particular playing field would drive up overall standards; so too would a focus on quality and a thinning out of rules and regs. But beyond all that, how can the industry hope to attract outside talent when morale within its current ranks is dragging along the floor? How motivated would you be if your skills were constantly deemed ‘not good enough’? And how engaged would you be if your concerns were paid lip-service or resulted in unforeseen ‘consequences’?

We supposedly live in an era of equal opportunities, at least that’s what legislation demands. Industries benefit by fitting the right people with the right skills to the right posts, and the railway has needs at both ends of the brain-brawn spectrum. Those who work best with their hands should not be excluded; neither should we seek to evolve them into something that they’re not. In the Seventies, before the country was hijacked by empire builders, William’s unique skills were appreciated without question. Why can’t they be today?

Story added 1st September 2011

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